HBO’s Marvelous ‘Superheroes’ And Public Service

I’m reading Grant Morrisson’s Supergods (about which more to come when I finish) right now, so when one of you suggested I watch HBO’s new, and extremely good, documentary Superheroes, I knew I’d end up reading the two works against each other. “We live in the stories we tell ourselves,” Morisson writes. “In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark.” Superheroes is about people who actually, not just imaginatively, live in the stories they tell themselves, who put on spandex and masks and head out to try to make their communities safer places.

Superheroes is admirably even-handed in assessing the motivations of the people who are featured in it. “I’ve grown up in a household of abuse, violence, I was bullied in school. I myself have been a victim of violent crime,” says Mr. Xtreme, the first hero we meet (the documentary calls them all by their chosen names. “I do this to protest things that are wrong with society.” But as we also find out, his mother thinks he’s been depressed since his grandmother told him he was so bad that his mother had gone away to get a replacement baby when she had his brother. Zimmer’s openly gay and fights without a mask because he’s worried about feeling closeted again. “It’s not so difficult to get into the mind of a criminal because I used to be a criminal. I sold drugs, I used to womanize, I was borderline alcoholic,” Lucid confesses. “Throughout my life, I’ve hurt enough people that I feel like I need to give back.” Insignis is also a recovering alcoholic, while Fool King grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood. Master Legend’s father was in the Ku Klux Klan, but he credits the Christian values his grandmother taught him with inspiring his superheroism.

And the documentary also draws a careful distinction between criticizing people for taking on superheroic identities, which it doesn’t do, and assessing their efficacy, which it’s clear-headed about. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively about the subject of superheroes, makes clear she doesn’t think there’s anything abnormal about taking on another identity. But a number of police veterans make clear how risky superhero work can be if heroes decide to confront violent criminals, as both Mr. Xtreme and Dark Guardian, who tries to drive drug dealers out of Washington Square Park at night, do fairly regularly, without involving the police. And the thing about being a superhero is that it’s hard to find crime even when you’re looking for it. Mr. Xtreme never runs into a groper he’s trying to hunt down in Chula Vista, though he does help lead an awareness campaign about the attacks. The New York Initiative never finds anyone even when they send out members alone, looking scantily dressed or vulnerable to try to provoke attacks they can stop, something that’s both properly labeled entrapment in the movie and that carries with it tremendous risks.

And as much as some of the heroes say they’re anti-corruption, some of them are clearly looking for opportunities to get into some sort of trouble with a cause attached to it, like Lucid, who declares that “This is me acting out a need I feel…I’m just sick of the corruption I see everywhere I look, whether it’s your boss at work or the guy next door who’s been beating his wife for 20 years,” and who later is disappointed when one of their sting operations fails. And just because you’re acting out your fantasy doesn’t mean it’s actually getting you the life you want. Mr. Xtreme explains that he doesn’t have much of a social life because he doesn’t have time. Apocalypse Meow joins her husband in reaching out to the homeless as a superhero, but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to be so understanding. Being a superhero may be a fantasy you act out, but it’s not a private one, and it can implicate the health and wellbeing of other people if you’re not careful and thoughtful about it.

But there’s an element to the superheroes’ work that I think is presented as if it’s totally, unambiguously admirable, and suggests new possibilities for joyful and powerful activism and citizenship. And that’s superheroism as a kind of magical activism. Stan Lee talks about his early days of drawing comics when he knew a man who dressed up in a superhero costume and harassed deadbeat landlords with a megaphone until they turned poor people’s hot water back on, a tactic that was probably strange, but certainly got attention, and seems to have been reasonably effective. Master Leader may be a dude who hangs out in a van and has awkward social interactions with people at bars, but he also knows about a mission that’s badly in need of donated toys for kids for Christmas, who end up getting their presents from not just Santa Claus but superheroes. There’s a certain level of self-awareness who come to San Diego during Comic-Con not to go to panels but to hand out water and food to homeless people (and who put together kits for homeless people in their own communities at their own expense). If putting on a mask and a costume is what gets you to sit down and talk to someone destitute, there’s a value in that empathy however you get there. If being a superhero is what inspired Zimmer to take EMT classes and be in a position to provide emergency medical attention, that’s a net value to society.

“I really treasure that anyone comes forward with a passion to public service,” says Chula Vista Councilman Rudy Ramirez of Mr. Xtreme’s campaign to bring attention to the groper who was attacking women in the city. If you want to be bigger than yourself in service of your community, and to imbue ideas about justice and collective responsibility with a certain kind of excitement and wonder, there’s something beautiful in that.


Some commenters have pointed out that entrapment is only entrapment if law enforcement does it. I apologize for the error, though I still feel some anxiety about these sorts of tactics.

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